Many years of camping in its various forms—from the two-person tent, through to the well-appointed glamper trailer—in the varied and wonderous places that this country has to offer, has highlighted a consistent theme: drop toilets are strange edifices.
A Christmas-period camping experience in the Snowy Mountains highlighted that it was time to pen some observations and perhaps draw a conclusion or two surrounding the use of this most Australian of facilities.
We arrived to a busy campground with friends on Christmas day to set up our camp on the banks of the Thredbo River—in my opinion the most beautiful river in Australia, if not the world. We were lucky to arrive when we did with the place full to the brim (or more appropriately, trout) by mid afternoon.
One observation I would make at this point relates to one’s arrival. We, thankfully, already had our location reserved, so arrival was largely stress-free. However, the already established campers were not to know this and so we were treated as any other person would be when arriving at an already bulging camping area: with great suspicion.
It’s like a scene from Deliverance, where you drive into a strange town and people either stare directly at you or refuse to make eye contact at all, with an undertone of “just keep driving fella, only trouble here for the likes of you.” Of course, it’s a strategy aimed at ensuring you don’t attempt to squeeze your eight person family tent into a space where someone in a sleeping bag would struggle to fit.
But once you are sensibly set up, the reception remarkably changes, people smile and wave and you become part of the group that stares. Strange business, this camping.
Anyway, our situation was perfect: beside our friends, in a position that guaranteed dappled shade throughout the day; a fire pit and picnic table handily situated for our use; and two trees appropriately spaced to enable the swinging of the hammock (hammock protocols/use are a separate story in themselves).
And importantly, just a short stroll to the toilet—close enough to note if the doors were closed (or see whether there was a queue), but far enough away to feel that you were not party to what was happening within.
With a teeming campground, and Christmas cheer being liberally shared, there was always going to be a strong draw on the available resources. To the credit of the NSW National Parks staff they were clean, functional and largely without odour (both the toilets and the staff). Regular visits by staff even ensured a consistent supply of paper and a pumping out or two, done quickly and professionally.
On the subject of toilet paper, one request to any National Parks folks reading this story, could you redesign the holder so it makes a little less noise when removing paper. The current version sounds like the Indian Pacific rolling into Central Station. Paper quantity/length is a very personal thing and obviously relates to the state of one’s system at any given visit. However, the noise generated by the paper being unrolled ensured that anyone within a fifty metre radius had a fairly good idea of what was going on. Perhaps this was the Park Service’s way of ensuring paper conservation.
The National Parks’ staff we met were great. We cornered one chap after a day or so of camping, and confronted him with a poo sample that we had discovered that morning on our table. Let’s be clear, we weren’t accusing him of anything, indeed, we knew it to be of animal origin but of which species we were curious to know. It hinted of a meat eater and not the ubiquitous possums who thought nothing of spending the night performing gymnastics atop our tents and raiding anything, foolishly left out at night. The ranger was fantastic. He had no answer for us, but duly bagged the proffered sample, promising to consult an office boffin and return the following day. And true to his word he returned to confirm that sadly, we didn’t know sh!t. It was, indeed, possum.
We quickly settled into our camp routine. Mornings were reasonably leisurely, after nights spent sitting around the campfire, enjoying a glass of red or two. This seemed to be the case across most of the campground.
The demand on toilets at this point was generally not severe, with visits being infrequent and brief, as people struggled out of warm beds at various times.
Can I say, that this first release of the day is often extremely satisfying in the camping context.
If you’re like me you might have had a glass or two the night before. At home this presents no problem if you need to arise mid-sleep to relieve yourself. You slide from your bed in the dark (lights wake unsympathetic partners) and follow a well memorised route, keeping your eyes slitted so that you can convince yourself on return that it was all a dream and sleep can continue without interference.
But none of this applies when camping. ‘Holding on’ goes to another new level in the bush. The process involved in finding relief is long, complicated, noisy and not without peril.
Firstly, you might be sleeping at floor level. Climbing off the ground, awash with slumber, is a much more difficult task than rolling out of a bed. If you are well prepared you might have a torch to hand, but even then you dare not strike it before you depart the tent for fear of waking loved ones. Then you have to decide what to wear. If you’ve slept in your undies then the issue of cold is a factor, particularly when camping in the Snowies. And there’s always the issue of who you might meet and how they might react to seeing a large pasty white man skulking among the sleeping, in a state of almost total nudity.
With that decision made you head for the exit, most likely treading on a child or two (it rarely wakes these champion sleepers) on your way to the next challenge, the tent zip.
There is nothing like the rustling, searching, grapple for that tiny zipper tab to elicit the following from your partner (note that tone). “What are you !@#@! doing.” In my experience the best form of defence is to attempt to shift the blame, “you think they’d build a @!#@! tent with a zip you could find, wouldn’t you.” To which the likely response is: “you woke me.” While it’s a redundant statement, I’ve found that any sort of witty retort at this point, is largely wasted and can often result in any number of outcomes which do not favour you.
Hopefully by this stage you’ve found that miniscule tab. You try to undo the exit quietly, but of course, in the still of a bush night it sounds like you’re trying to slide a canoe into a mailbox. And then you have to repeat it once you’ve exited because you dare not leave it open, thinking of the mayhem and carnage that would ensue if you had inadvertently granted access to a possum.
The next step is to decide whether to bother with shoes. More fumbling will further anger the already angry but then you have to balance this against stepping on sharp objects like rocks and sticks or worse on some sort of night creature like a centipede or, heaven forbid, a snake.
But possibly the biggest decision you need to make is where do you go. You’re in your undies, without shoes, and the temperature is hovering at around four degrees. Mr Hypothermia is somewhere in the neighbourhood so you dare not dally. The toilet seems an awfully long way away, but the neighbour’s tent is not.
Are they awake? Have they heard your ten minute effort to vacate your tent. Even peeing at this hour sounds ridiculously loud, like when the hose blows off the tap when you have the water turned to a high pressure. You aim at a tree to break the sound, the tops of your feet quickly dampen, it’s not going well, but at least it’s done. You turn and head back to the zip, giving a brief wave to your neighbour, who is standing, staring at you. He doesn’t wave back. You undo the zip again… Who doesn’t love camping?
As at home I assume the role of barista, firing up the gas stove each morning and setting forth the stove-top Italian espresso pot—just because one is camping one doesn’t need to travel steerage. The resulting brew was generally enough to lure my wife from the tent and go some way to apologising for the previous night’s debacle. A bowl of muesli and a chat with friends generally ensued, seemingly getting us in sync with most of the other campers.
It was at this point that the demand on facilities would alter, along with behaviour. Where before, during the first visit of the day (largely number ones I suspect) people were likely to say good morning and offer a “no, after you, I believe you were first. Oh no, I can wait, after you.” Behaviour now changed as people got down to serious business, shall we say.
For example, on one occasion, as I was calmly walking towards the facility, a woman walking from the opposite direction—clearly further away than I—deliberately and noticeably increased to flank speed. Now I would be the first give way to an emergency, but it was a look of determination on her face, not one of fear, pleading or desperation (such as you might see from a tourist in India). I duly withered under the pressure and about-faced, not wishing to loiter outside, like the vanquished foe.
What I did notice was that queues readily formed at this time but that people did not engage, either with others in the queue, and definitely not with the person vacating the facility. I guess, on reflection, the options for communication are limited: “so, off for a you-know-what are you?”
“Yes, had a wee earlier, but you know how it is, a coffee and a bowl of muesli…”
Perhaps if we were more comfortable with our bodily functions we could do this, but it was almost a look of shame on the face of the person decamping the facility, as he or she stared fixedly at the ground, striding purposely away from the crime scene. What had they left in there to cause such a hasty departure? Given the height of the drop, it would have to be something that science or PT Barnum was interested in, to make enough of an impact to bother the next person.
Duration of stay is quite stressful too. Where at home one might takes one’s time, perhaps even read a magazine or surf the net, it doesn’t do to loiter when there is a queue outside, lest people around the campground whisper and snicker as you walk past, “that’s the bloke I told you about, 17 minutes…”
This morning rush lasted for around ninety minutes and for the remainder of the day, demand was largely light and stress free. Interestingly those people who so studiously ignored you in the queue earlier in the day were full of ‘Merry Christmases’ and ‘Happy New Years’, like nothing had ever happened.
Perhaps it is these kinds of challenges that make so many realise that camping is not for them, that the effort, logistics and processes are just too numerous to make it worthwhile. But for me, it only took one stroll down to the bank of the river to watch a platypus playing in the shallows to reinforce why I was there and why I would be back.